Dictionary's Kiwi editor vindicated

Last updated 10:36 29/11/2012
Robert Burchfield
VINDICATED: Robert Burchfield found not to have deleted words from the Oxford English Dictionary.

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Claims that a New Zealand former editor of the English Oxford Dictionary covertly deleted words that were foreign-sounding are "completely bogus", according to a historian of lexicography.

An article in The Guardian about a book to be released by lexicographer Sarah Ogilvie, claimed Whanganui-born Robert Burchfield covertly deleted thousands of words because of their foreign origins, and then blamed previous editors when people realised words had gone missing. Burchfield died in 2004.

But an article published online today cites lexicography historian Charlotte Brewer as saying the real reason certain words were missing was "far less nefarious".

"James Murray, the dictionary’s first editor, made an early editorial decision that the O.E.D. would not include any proper nouns - this was regarded as the province of the encyclopedia, not the dictionary - and that words formed from proper nouns would likewise be excluded," it said.

It was then that words such as ‘African’ were excluded from the first part of the ‘A section’ of the dictionary.

According to the article's author, Jesse Sheidlower, Brewer's research showed the poorly-made policy was quickly overturned while work on the A section was being continued, so words such as ‘American’ were still able to be added.

It wasn't until 49 years later in 1933, when an edition titled ‘The Oxford English Dictionary: Being a Corrected Re-issue with an Introduction, Supplement, and Bibliography of a New English Dictionary on Historical Principles’, was published that the errors were corrected.

The book is now simply referred to as the ‘1933 supplement’, and when Burchfield took over the editorship, he had the task of incorporating relevant parts of that into the Oxford English Dictionary's second edition.

He was not tasked with re-writing the supplement, and this, according to the article published today, was where Ogilvie had become confused.

Burchfield had to produce a one-volume update of the dictionary in seven years. It ended up taking four volumes over 29 years.

Working with limited space, words inevitably had to be cut, Brewer said.

In her own book, Brewer wrote that Burchfield accepted "most, if not all" submissions from the supplement, but Burchfield himself wrote in the preface of the dictionary that the few that were missing were edited out because they weren't considered useful words.

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"...rejecting only those words, phrases, and senses that seemed transitory or too narrowly restricted in currency.”

The omitted words fell across a number of categories. Words included abactinally, abolitional, abrasable, automobilize, and botryogen.

While some simply happened to be foreign-sounding words, it "did not mean Burchfield was hostile toward these words", Sheidlower wrote.

"He did not delete them, he simply edited them."

- Stuff

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